As with any physical or mental impairment, an applicant with impaired vision who applies for federal disability benefits (Social Security disability or SSI) can be approved on the basis of meeting the requirements of one of Social Security's disability listings or can be approved on the basis of a medical-vocational allowance.
Social Security's disability listings book provides the specific approval criteria for a number of known impairments. In the case of vision impairments, there aren't separate listings that specifically address conditions such as macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, or cataracts. Instead, the listing book focuses on the measurable loss of visual ability that may result from any number of medical conditions.
To qualify for Social Security disability or SSI on the basis of a vision impairment, there are three listings in the Social Security Administration's impairment listing manual that apply to most claims involving loss of vision. These listings deal with:
What does "in the better eye" mean? For a disability claim involving a visual problem, the Social Security Administration will evaluate a claimant's medical records and consider the claimant's residual (remaining) visual acuity and peripheral vision in both eyes. If one of the claimant's eyes meets the approval requirements of a listing and the other eye does not (this would be the better eye), the claimant will not be approved on the basis of meeting a listing.
For example, listing 2.02 (the listing regarding central visual acuity which is the listing under which most vision impairment claims are approved) states that, for an individual to be approved on the basis of this listing, the remaining vision in the better eye, after best correction, must be 20/200 or less.
Translation: If a disability claimant's vision in both eyes, after glasses or contacts are worn (i.e., best correction), is 20/200 or worse, the claimant will qualify for disability under listing 2.02. However, if the vision in just one eye is this bad, and the vision in the other eye is even just slightly better, the claimant will not be approved for benefits under this listing.
When a claimant cannot be approved on the basis of meeting one of the official vision impairment listings mentioned above, this does not mean that they cannot be approved for disability benefits. Instead it means that Social Security must look at how the claimant's visual impairment affects the claimant's ability to work; this is called a medical-vocational assessment. A medical-vocational assessment takes into account your functional limitations (such as not being able to drive), your age, your job skills, and your education level. For more information, read our article about how you can get a medical-vocational allowance for poor eyesight.